Roy Hodgson goes into Monday’s crucial qualifier in Switzerland asking himself a question he might not have expected: how does he get the best out of the teenager who is the key to England’s success?
It has all happened quickly but this weekend, on the eve of England’s first Euro 2016 qualifier, their best and most important attacking player, the man most likely to secure a win over the Swiss, is Liverpool’s brilliant 19-year-old Raheem Sterling.
The sudden switch in Sterling, from promise to excellence, has been one of the stories of English football in 2014. Wayne Rooney has had a poor year – further underlined by his display in the 1-0 win over Norway on Wednesday – while Steven Gerrard has retired from the international game. Only Daniel Sturridge can rival Sterling’s status.
While previous England managers have wondered how to build the perfect platform for Rooney, that is no longer Hodgson’s main concern. Sterling has the greater destructive potential and that is what England need to maximise.
On Wednesday they found a way eventually. Hodgson’s team started off in a rigid 4-4-2 system, with Sterling out wide on the left. He was dangerous when he got the ball, setting up two good chances for Sturridge in the first half, one with a backheel, the other with a long ball. While the England performance was poor, it was Sterling who made their only goal, darting away from Omar Elabdellaoui and drawing the foul, allowing Rooney to convert from the penalty spot.
It was after the goal, though, that Sterling and England played their best football. Rooney went off and they switched to a diamond midfield, with Sterling at the tip, just behind the strikers, Sturridge and Danny Welbeck. Seeing more of the ball, and able to drive at opponents through the middle, he was electric. Sterling would have set up a second goal had James Milner managed a better finish from the Liverpool man’s precise pass. Whether Hodgson will have the courage to use him in that way on Monday will become clear in time.
Sterling showed again his remarkable flexibility and intelligence, just as he did last season for Liverpool, in which he played four or five different roles, or at the World Cup, where he was used at No 10 against Italy and then on the left against Uruguay.
Jordan Henderson has seen all of this – for club and country – at close quarters and said late on Wednesday at Wembley just how impressed he has been by his young team-mate. “Raheem has been outstanding since he’s come into the England first team,” Henderson said. “I thought he was outstanding in both games at the World Cup. For a 19-year-old to play on the world stage like that was magnificent. He continues to do it every week for Liverpool and he got man of the match again tonight.”
Sterling’s skills are very apparent – he is quick, skilful and strong – but what allows him to play with this precocious adaptability is a football nous finely tuned to the demands of different roles. At the peak of the diamond, whether for club or country, he knows when to drift wide to create an overlap and when to stay central, ready to attack through the middle.
Henderson is five years older than Sterling but knows the teenager is no novice. “His football brain is not as young as that,” Henderson said. “He is really clever with his positioning, he drives forward with the ball.”
The obvious question is whether Sterling is better through the middle or out wide, but Henderson would not commit. “I think he’s brilliant in both,” he said, diplomatically but entirely accurately. “When he’s wide he can go in behind, come short, or take players on one against one like he did for the penalty. But when he went to No 10 he got a little bit more of the ball and he can drive forward with it. He’s brilliant in both positions, it’s vital, if we play different tactics he can adapt.”
The expectation of winning games for Liverpool and England must be draining – Sterling can ask Gerrard about that – but Henderson believes he has he mentality to cope. “Raheem plays with no fear, he just wants to get the ball, run at people and take people on,” he said. “He was 16 when I first saw him training with Liverpool. You could see he had the mentality to be a top player.”
That is certainly how Sterling’s career is developing now, but he will be as aware as anyone that he is not yet 20 and that he has not won anything yet. There are years of hard work left to go, starting in Basel on Monday night, whatever the system.
“We try to keep his feet on the floor, he’s got the right people around him at the club and off the field as well,” Henderson added. “If he keeps working hard, with the players and the manager he has at Liverpool he can really kick on. I don’t think he’s going to get carried away by it.”